“Your papers are due on Sunday. Upload them to the online dropbox by midnight and just so you know, I will not accept anything less than five pages.”
I held up one hand in response to the chorus of groans that filled my classroom. “We’ve discussed this. If you don’t have five pages, then you haven’t covered the subject in enough depth. You need more examples, more details. If you have more than five pages, then you need to focus on your topic. Eliminate any extra.”
A distant bell rang and my final instructions were nearly drowned out by the bustle of students gathering books and bags and rushing for the door. “Spelling, punctuation, and grammar count!” My voice died away as I cautioned an empty room. Moving automatically to switch off computers and gather leftover papers, I thought how ironic it was to insist on five pages from my students when I couldn’t get past one. I wasn’t a firm believer in word count anyway, preferring to ride the flow of words when they came, but state guidelines blah, blah, blah. How the heck those ever got passed when there wasn’t a teacher alive who cared anything about them was beyond me.
Sighing, I flipped off the light and headed straight for the parking lot. If I didn’t walk by the front office, I could avoid the endless stream of students, parents, and other staff who wanted to chat and still make it to the grocery store before the Friday night commuters. There were perks to teaching. Days that ended early almost made up for the endless nights of grading papers and worrying over how to cover bills.
Oh, it wasn’t that I didn’t like my job. I did. The students were a constant source of entertainment, always saying or doing something that left me dumbfounded and amused. Nothing quite jazzes the brain like a student who argued Game of Thrones as Utopian or some other off-the-wall nonsense. It almost made up for the dozens of papers that were a mish-mash of run-on sentences that said nothing. No, my frustration today was because I had no story.
Nothing gelled. My deadline loomed closer and closer, but nothing occurred that could be molded into a cohesive, compelling whole worthy of submission. Not the student who got suspended for cartwheels in the library, not the parent who finally exploded and slapped her husband silly in the front office, not even the rather sad case of the janitor who finally retired only to pass a day later. Nothing seemed suitable. I was headed to another frustrating weekend of trying to put words on paper. And since my time would soon be claimed by student papers, my frustration was growing.
I drove past the grocery store to the corner. Taking the back road into the parking lot meant I didn’t have to turn against two lanes of on-coming traffic. It meant waiting at the light, but that wasn’t a hardship exactly as the dancing skater was out today. An older gentleman, it was hard to tell his exact age as his skin was leathered by the sun into a golden brown, striking against white hair and even whiter teeth. They flashed happily at the world as he swayed and dipped, spinning around and around on his skates, dancing on the street corner as the traffic roared by. I don’t know what music he heard through the wires dangling from his ear, but I guessed disco from the bright shorts and headband he wore. That and the skates. I didn’t think anyone skated to music anymore, except for this guy.
The light changed and I drove round the corner, honking briefly as I passed the dancing skater. He waved back. Nice guy, I thought and wondered if he could be a story before remembering seeing something on the local news. No, no story there then. Just another reason Florida was known as the weirdest state, even if he was nice one.
Another not so nice, but fairly common reason was battling it out in parking lot. A daycare van had pulled up right in front of the sliding doors, so that the van for the senior citizens home was parked maybe ten feet away. A frail stick of a man with wispy, white hair was angrily denouncing ‘spoiled brats’ to the teenage bag boy who was helping him into an electric cart while the maybe thirty soccer mom who climbed out of the day care van admonished her charges to ‘be careful of the old people.’ Two little girls watched her wide-eyed while a little boy had already moved to the candy offerings near the check-out counter. The bag boy pretended he didn’t hear anything.
I slipped around both passive-aggressive combatants and started slowly down the aisle. The senior citizens were out in force, true, but they weren’t as much of a nuisance as the moms who tended to wander slowly down the middle of the narrow aisles so no one could get past them. The moms were odd. I could understand wanting to get out of the house, but they moved in their own little world, not saying hi to each other like the senior citizens, not even paying attention to their kids until one cried out over something. They just stared dreamily at the shelves of products as they meandered along. In another hour, when impatient commuters started dropping in, the complaints would start in earnest.
I rounded a corner, only to see an approaching cluster of children surrounding a mom intent on her shopping list. Coming from the other direction, I could see the elderly man from the parking lot, now coaxing his scooter along in stops and starts. The bagboy with him was banging a hand basket against his knees as he gazed vacantly around.
I pulled back to avoid both parties and bumped into a shopping cart behind me.
“Oh, I beg your pardon.” The tiny, elderly woman behind me had a bright smile and a curious gleam in her eyes. I groaned inwardly. She was a talker, one of those senior citizens who’d strike up a conversation with anyone who’d listen. On a late Friday afternoon, it was asking a lot.
“It’s crowded in here today,” she began. I nodded with a grimace but didn’t say anything. Craning her neck to see what I avoided, she raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Don’t you like children?”
“Oh yeah. I’m a teacher,” I told her. Florida may be weird, but it’s still a Southern state. Unless you’re a New York transplant, proper manners are ingrained.
The look of delight that lit up the elderly woman’s face was riveting. “Oh I taught school,” she crowed. “I taught physics.”
“Really?” She was so not what I would have imagined as a science teacher.
“Oh yes. They hired me right out of school to teach boys’ high school physics.” The tiny woman laughed. “Can you imagine? I wasn’t any older than some of those boys and they stood heads taller than me. They could have given me such a hard time, but they were just the nicest boys. They did whatever I asked of them.”
I laughed at the mental image of a newly minted teacher teaching fully grown teenage boys. If she was as tiny then as she was now, that must have been quite a sight. “Sounds like you enjoyed teaching.”
“Oh yes,” the lady smiled fondly in reminiscence. “What do you teach?” she added, looking up.
“I’m a writing instructor.”
“Oh, I remember that.” The lady nodded seriously. “We used to practice for hours to get the letters just right.”
I smiled and nodded agreement because I couldn’t think what else to say. It seemed an odd comment. Since when did writing mean penmanship and not composition? I excused myself as the aisle cleared and headed toward produce, still puzzling over the old woman’s statement.
If the lady was old enough to remember handwriting, what kind of physics could she have taught? Einstein had done his thing between the wars. I knew World War I had just hit the 100 year mark because the anniversary had been on the news. And World War II was 75 years ago, also an anniversary. Okay, the old lady could have taught physics, or at least physics as it was now known with atoms and such. What did I know?
Actually I was kind of embarrassed that I didn’t know more about physics. And that I assumed the woman couldn’t teach it. I racked my brain to remember what I could. There were atoms and then something about Brownian or Browning motion. Or no, they were the poets. I shook my head and changed directions, heading for the bakery aisle. Since I obviously didn’t have any good ideas, I was going to need heavy fuel to get any writing done this weekend. Brownies sounded just about right.
Since I’ve confessed, you share now. What gets you through the next chapter?